Kindle Previewer: New and (really!) Improved

I’ve been using Amazon’s Kindle Previewer app ever since I started formatting ebooks. Have to say, I was never much impressed with it. It had some useful features and it was a quick way to convert an epub file into a mobi file, and a sort of quick way to convert a Word doc into a mobi file so I could load it onto a Kindle or tablet. As for viewing a book on the computer? Forget it. It looked awful and the screen size couldn’t be adjusted. For some tasks it was essential, but I never fully trusted it to give me a hundred percent true rendering of my ebooks.

Then I got a brand new computer and when I downloaded the Kindle Previewer, I got the newest version.

And oh my God, Amazon, what have you done?

Look at this!

The display is big and clear and along with the “Kindle” view there are thumbnails of individual page screens.

Along with a much easier, clearer to understand user interface (everything you need is right there in a menu panel on the left side of the screen), it also does some nifty tricks. Like popping up footnotes.

It also gives a great rendering of a smart phone screen. This is essential for checking alignment and making sure such things as headers aren’t so oversized they look stupid on a small screen.

For those of you, my dear readers, with a Do-It-Yourself frame of mind, this version also converts Word docs. No more need for converting the doc first in MobiPocket and then converting the prc file. Click File > Open Book and select a Word doc and the program will convert it into a mobi file. It won’t be a commercial quality ebook and it won’t build the internal navigation guide, but it does allow you to check your styling and the mobi file can be loaded onto your Kindle or tablet for proofreading.

The program no longer automatically creates a mobi file to place on your computer. You have to ask it to export a file. It takes just a second, so it’s no hassle.

The only downside I’ve discovered is that it’s no longer a good tool for what I call bizarre character checks. When I have questions about whether or not a particular character or symbol will render across the board in all devices, the old version of the Kindle Previewer allows me to do that by viewing the file in DX mode. If I see a question mark or gibberish, I know the character is unsafe and I have to find a substitute. There is no DX mode in this new version. I’m keeping the old version on my other computer specifically for that task.

So, thank you, Amazon, for an amazing new tool! As a client of mine said (after I told him how to use it to create a quick review ebook): “It’s like a little piece of magic from the gods.”

 

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Calibre, Word and MOBI: A Tale of Three Programs

(Yes, I know, MOBI is not a program, but my blog, my headlines…)

Ever since I started blogging about ebooks, I’ve cautioned people against using Microsoft Word to format their ebooks. Not because Word is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create ebooks with it. It’s because it’s the not quite right tool. Word’s strength lies in creating print documents or pdfs.

Recently, I’ve been cautioning people to not use Calibre to convert their Word files into MOBI files in order to sell them on Amazon. Not because Calibre is a bad program and not because it’s impossible to create MOBI files with it. It’s because it’s not quite the right tool. Calibre’s strength lies in managing a person’s digital library. It was not created to convert commercial ebook files.

EPUB files are not as troublesome as MOBI files. EPUB is EPUB is EPUB, and while each device has its own special way of rendering the file to fit the platform, the differences between devices aren’t big enough for most people to notice. A single EPUB file will work pretty much the same on a Nook as it does on an iPad.

Calibre is set up for optimum use with EPUB files. If a publisher converts a Word (html) file into an EPUB file using Calibre, then what they see there is pretty close to what a Nook or iPad reader will see.

This is not true with MOBI files. The reason is Amazon. You see, EPUB devices have evolved and changed and upgraded and gone the way all technology goes, ever upward and onward. But the device makers built the newer devices around the existing ebook platform. So an EPUB ebook formatted five years ago will work pretty much the same on a new iPad as it did on a first generation Nook. Amazon went bass-ackwards. They built the new devices then tinkered and recreated entirely new ebook platforms to fit the new devices. So a MOBI file being sold on Amazon isn’t just a MOBI file. It’s also a KF/8 file and an iOS file and an AZW3 file and god knows what else is there. I don’t quite get all the technical stuff. What I do get is that the same ebook can work fine on a Kindle Fire, but go to hell on a Paperwhite and look okay on a Kindle Keyboard and turn into gibberish if an iPad user gets hold of it.

The whys and wherefores don’t matter as much as the fact that a file formatted in a program which is optimal for printing documents and then converted with a program that is at its best with EPUB files, is going to have trouble meeting the very odd demands of Kindles.

(By the way, if you are using Scrivner or InDesign to create your ebooks for sale on Amazon, you will run into the same exact problems because Amazon is constantly tweaking and fiddling with the platform(s) and updating devices and they don’t necessarily share what they’ve done with the rest of the world.)

I realize that none of what I just wrote is going to dissuade people from using Calibre to convert their Word docs into MOBI files to sell on Amazon. I know this because people are using Word because that’s the program they know and love(hate) and they need a way to convert those Word files and Calibre is the shortest distance between A and B.

So instead of wagging my finger and clucking my tongue, I did some research. Question: Is it possible to format a file in Word and convert it with Calibre and create a MOBI file good enough to sell on Amazon? (Here, I make a very clear distinction. If your Nook died and you bought a Kindle, and you want to convert all your Nook books into MOBI files you can load onto your Kindle, Calibre is a great tool. That’s personal use. You expect that the ebook might not work completely right, but that’s okay, at least you have it. You can’t ask your paying customers to accept that standard.)

What I discovered is: Yes, it is possible.

I managed to fix the worst problems I see with Calibre-converted ebooks. I managed to create ebooks that respond properly to all the user preferences in three generations of Kindles (Kindle Keyboard, Paperwhite and Fire). I almost got Calibre to build a toc.ncx (what the user sees in the Go To features on Fires and Paperwhites) the way I want it to. I think with some more tinkering and fiddling around inside the opf file, I can fix that problem. I couldn’t get the cover to display on the bookshelf in my Paperwhite, but that’s kind of a non-issue, since Amazon will handle that when the book is uploaded. (It is only a big deal if a publisher is selling direct.)

Even though the ebooks I created this way aren’t up to my standards, they will respond to user preferences and they will look fine and read fine, and thus, they are good enough for uploading to Amazon.

There is a caveat. If you format your document, save it as an html file and convert it as is with Calibre, your ebook will be broken. It will be a substandard product you should not ask people to pay for. What you have to do first and foremost is format your Word file so it works within Calibre’s parameters, and secondly, you have to fix the html coding in the Word file.

Sound scary? It is, kind of. Word’s html coding is a nightmare, full of mso odd bits that give Kindles the hiccups. The good news is, all you really need to do is remove some very specific lines of code and rearrange a few others.

Since this post is running long and I don’t even have any pretty pictures to enliven it, (plus I have a buttload of Christmas gifts to wrap) I am going to explain how I did it in my next post. It’ll have pictures. In the meantime, if any of you, Dear Readers, have figured this out and feel like sharing in the comments, feel free.

I Don’t Hate Calibre, But…

duck coverJudging by the heated storm I roused the last time I criticized Calibre it’s probably a mistake to do so again. What the hell. I have to say it:

DO NOT USE CALIBRE TO CONVERT YOUR EBOOKS FOR THE PURPOSES OF SELLING THEM ON AMAZON.

Yesterday I did a troubleshoot and repair on a writer’s ebook. The EPUB she had converted from Word via Calibre was perfectly fine. It was a valid EPUB, and it displayed the way it should on both Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. Problems arose when she converted the EPUB into AZW3 and MOBI. The ebook worked when she loaded it onto her Paperwhite Kindle, though it had some disturbing issues. Amazon rejected the file outright.

I took her EPUB and ran it through the Kindle Previewer to see what the problem was. It converted with WARNINGS (never want to see that). The ebook opened, but the button under Devices for Kindle for iOS was greyed out. And the cover didn’t display. When I loaded it on my Paperwhite, some of the user controls were locked. I then went back and looked inside the EPUB. The Calibre conversion had declared font-families–Georgia and Times New Roman–neither of which display on Kindles, but they aren’t ignored either, and hence cause all sorts of interesting little problems. Plus, it had built a cover page.

I’m not a techie person, so I don’t know if I can explain it adequately, but I will try. When a file is uploaded to Amazon it converts the source file into a 3-in-1 ebook. If you’ll compare the size of an EPUB to a Kindle, you’ll notice that the MOBI file is about 3 times bigger than the EPUB. The ebook you buy from Amazon will work across several types of devices: e-ink readers, Fire tablets, and a variety of apps, including iOS for Apple. This is tricky stuff. While Calibre can and does convert your files into the MOBI format or AZW3 format, and the files are suitable for personal use, they aren’t suitable for commercial use because the probability is about 97.3% that an ebook converted through Calibre and then uploaded to Amazon will be broken.

This is all about Amazon. They have proprietary platforms and they are constantly updating and improving and tinkering and it’s difficult for outsiders to keep up. Calibre is a library management tool, not a commercial conversion tool. They can’t be expected to stay ahead of the Amazon updates and bugs. That’s not their purpose.

The fix for the writer’s problem ebook was fairly simple. I removed the font-family declarations, removed the cover page, added a line of code to the metadata in the content.opf so Amazon knew the cover was in the file, resized the cover and ran it through the Kindle Previewer. Voila! Everything worked the way it should. The writer was able to upload the file to Amazon with no problems.

My recommendation to the writer for future projects was this: continue using Calibre to convert her Word files to EPUB files since there appear to be no problems and her ebooks are working fine. But, then to refresh her knowledge about using stylesheets in Word via Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and direct load her Word file to Amazon. It’s a bit of a pain since you can’t examine and adjust the file before you start the uploading process, but you can take full advantage of the previewer at Amazon and make sure everything works before you hit the Publish button. That way there won’t be any extraneous items like cover pages and “embedded” fonts to muck up the works.

So seriously, folks, don’t kill the messenger or throw rotten tomatoes. This is just the reality. Calibre is not the right tool for converting files to sell on Amazon. Use the program for what it’s intended–managing your ebook library–and find other means to deal with Amazon.

Calibre and Kindle, Not a Good Match

UPDATE 010314: I wrote this article before I did any real research into Calibre. Considering the vast number of hits this blog post is generating, I knew there was a call for information about how to convert a Word file to MOBI in Calibre. I found a fix and I wrote a series of posts about it. Part 1 (Styling in Word), Part 2 (the HTML file) and Part 3 (Conversion in Calibre). It’s not a quick fix (or magical), but it’s not difficult either.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Calibre. It’s quick, it’s handy, and it has an attractive screen display that I far prefer over Adobe Digital Editions or the Kindle Previewer. Since I don’t have a device capable of reading EPUB files, it’s also useful for checking the formatting on files I create for others.

What it’s not good for? Converting EPUB files into MOBI files for commercial purposes.

Having seen some horrendously broken ebooks that had been converted through Calibre, I have long suspected that Calibre was the wrong tool for the job. I assumed it was user error, a problem with the source file and/or the html, and if the formatter did a really good job with the initial file, Calibre wouldn’t muck it up.

I was wrong. The problem is with Calibre.

Squish3I converted an EPUB file to a MOBI file with Calibre. I then took the exact same file and converted it with KindleGen via the Kindle Previewer. The above screenshots are the results. Same page, same settings, same device (Kindle Paperwhite).

Squished lines.

In the recent ebook formatting contest, I saw squishy line spacing in every single ebook that had been converted via Calibre.

So maybe the problem lies in the subtle differences between the html coding for EPUB and MOBI. I ran a file I had made specifically for Kindle through Calibre. Squishy lines. I took that Calibre-generated file and ran it through KindleGen. Squishy lines.

Could Amazon be taking care of the problem? I downloaded samples from the contest entries. Squishy lines.

Why does Calibre do this? I have no idea. It just does.

Why is it a problem? Because for many readers, myself included, Kindles (and other ereaders) make reading comfortable again. My eyes are old, plus I spend all day in front of a computer. My eyes are tired. With the Kindle I can change the font, adjust the font size and change the line spacing for optimal comfort. Squishy line spacing is hard on my eyes. When I try to read an ebook that I can’t adjust for my comfort, I get irked. When I’m irked, that author/publisher ends up on my Don’t Bother list. (Your future sales, folks)

There are alternatives to Calibre. If you are converting a Word or html file, use MobiPocket Creator. If you have a simply formatted file, it will generate a prc file you can upload to Amazon and it will work. If you have an EPUB or html file, you can use the Kindle Previewer (converts with KindleGen). A warning about the Kindle Previewer–what you see is not always what you get. Trust but verify and test your files on an actual device if you can.